Posts Tagged ‘Diaries’

Grand Tour #18 – Romania. Diary of a Short-Sighted Adolescent / Mircea Eliade

August 7, 2017

Mircea Eliade’s Diary of a Short-Sighted Adolescent was written in the 1920s when the author was the same age as its nameless narrator (seventeen), but not discovered and published until after Eliade’s death in 1986; this translation by Christopher Moncrieff, ‘with reference to an original translation by Christopher Bartholomew’, appeared in 2016.

There’s some ambiguity about the title: the cover of the Istros Books edition has the word ‘Diary’ obliterated and replaced with ‘Novel’, and indeed the Romanian title, Romanul adolescentului miop, seems to suggest a novel rather than a diary; in fact the book is a fictional diary that chronicles inter alia the diarist’s efforts to write his magnum opus, to be entitled The Novel of the Short-Sighted Adolescent. Simple really.

His primary motivating factor for writing the novel is that he’s not doing well at school, and he thinks that if he manages to get the novel written and published within the year it will impress his teachers enough that they’ll pass him in spite of his poor performance. The characters will be based on people he knows. When he announces that his friend Robert will be used to exemplify ridiculousness, Robert modifies his behaviour so as not to be ridiculous any more. He’s worried about writing convincing girl characters, so asks his cousin for advice on what it’s like to be a girl.

This is by way of giving a taste of the interior world we are immersed in. The book has been championed by Nicholas Lezard, who says it’s funnier than Adrian Mole. I’d take issue with that, but to anyone even vaguely familiar with Mole the similarities leap out. Take the diarist’s minute inventory of his procrastinations as he tries to learn trigonometry in a single day, which recalls Adrian’s minute-by-minute account of his class’s calamitous trip to the British Museum:

By evening I had read twenty-seven pages, with a hundred and one to go. This was because at 4.30 I had taken a cold shower; at 5.30 I had decided I was starving and went downstairs to have something to eat; at 6.30 I started reading a magazine; at 7 o’clock I was thirsty, at 7.15 my pencil broke, at 7.30 the sound of the birds twittering made me feel melancholy, at 8 o’clock I felt persecuted, at 8.15 I lit the lamp, – even though it wasn’t really necessary – at 8.30 I studied my face in the mirror, at 8.40 I made some notes for the psychological aspects of my novel, at 8.50 I decided to have a short rest so as not to overexert myself, and at 8.55 I was called to supper.

After supper I played the piano for quite a long time, something I hadn’t done for several years. It was quarter past eleven when I went back up to the attic.

His friend Dinu is the equivalent of Adrian’s Nigel, a friendly rival. While he is slaving away at his maths work, Dinu has a private tutor. When his own mother gets him a tutor to help with German, the tutor is a 16-year-old boy… There is also a John Tydeman figure, Mr Leontescu, a magazine editor to whom the diarist gives his writing for publication without remuneration. I’m sick of calling him ‘the diarist’ or ‘the narrator’. Fuck writers who don’t name their characters. I’m calling him Jake Westmorland from now on.

Jake has emotional crises and setbacks. A passage relating one:

Today, just before sunset, I died. From now on, a different light will shine on my disfigured face. My clouded eyes will see the world in a different way, and another life will rise up from the depths of my soul.

Again, pure Adrian Mole, but in Adrian’s case the reader would be in hysterics because of the certainty that within a couple of days things would be all right again (not that one doesn’t love Adrian or feel his pain). Lightness rules Adrian’s world. Jake’s volatile episodes last longer, and affect the reader more deeply. Adrian’s bookishness, similarly, is always played for comic effect (‘Started reading Animal Farm, by George Orwell. I think I might like to be a vet when I grow up.’) but Jake’s is not, though we may still be amused by his devotion to the likes of Anatole France or his fantasies of himself as Ibsen’s Brand… (The real bookworm is Jake’s friend Marcu, who is delighted when he is suspended from school for reading in class as it gives him the time to finish Les Misérables.)

Another book that frequently occurred to me as I read this one was The Confusions of Young Törless by Robert Musil, one of those novels I seem to have absorbed by accident. The darker side of adolescence is indulged in these books as it isn’t in Adrian Mole’s safe suburban hell. Musil’s protagonists visit a prostitute, Božena, and some of them sleep with her; Jake has a similar experience, and is ashamed. Flagellation figures heavily in Musil’s book, and features in one bleak scene in Eliade’s, where Jake whips himself.

But the book ends, pleasingly, on a upbeat note. You come to care for Jake and to see yourself in him. Well, I did anyway. In the raucous choir singing Christmas carols, in the intentions to reform his work ethic perpetually scuppered by apathy (evoking memories of Christmas when I was about 15, a shadow cast over the whole holiday by a piece of physics homework I swore to do immediately but didn’t get around to until the last moment), in his spaniel-heartedness (quoting The History Boys here, as usual). Reading Ionel Teodoreanu’s book Childhood Lane, Jake falls for the character of Sonia.

Forgive me, Ionel Teodoreanu; but if Sonia really exists, then tell her that an ugly boy who doesn’t know what he wants is sad because of her eyes.

The sweet melancholy of feelings like this is one of my fonder memories of adolescence, the discovery of new emotions in oneself. Nice to revisit it.

Diary excerpts 6 — walking to work edition

November 30, 2016

7 January
Chalked on the back of a lorry in Trinity Street: HAPPY XMAS MUMMY

17 March
Seen on the way to work today: a builder singing ‘Cowabunga’ to the tune of the Hallelujah Chorus, and a cyclist wearing a baseball cap with horns attached.

12 April
Woman dragging her heels in front of me this morning. When I got to where she’d been dawdling, I saw why – a female blackbird hopping about on a wheelie bin. Just the most beautiful of birds. I didn’t care for blackbirds as a boy, I liked the showy ones, kingfishers and peacocks, even pigeons with their shiny feathers.

pigeon-at-st-pauls

13 May
On the way to work this morning: a father bending down to kiss his 10-year-old son as they walked to St Luke’s. A swan with a titanic wingspan flapping under Magdalene Bridge. Boulez on a bike. Daniel Zeichner. A male blackbird alighting on the King’s Parade wall, flapping his wings and stomping his tail and tweeting vociferously. I wanted to put him in a little box.

18 September
Senses simultaneously heightened and blurred by slight drunkenness last night. Waking up with my voice a fifth lower because of the beer, singing along with songs down the octave as I got dressed, humming pedal D’s on ‘Mir ist so wunderbar’ as I walked to work.

22 September
A few days ago I walked past a dead pigeon on the pavement at the bottom of the road. I didn’t stop to inspect it, but it appeared to have died peacefully, albeit surrounded by its own droppings. Now the body is gone, but the droppings remain. Can a bird shit itself to death, I find myself wondering.

29 September
Listened to the first movement of Brahms 2 (Harnoncourt) as I walked to work through the teeming rain. A realisation later that Brahms is my great hero, maybe my greatest hero, for that piece as much as for anything else. It’s remarkable.

3 November
It’s not every day you get leered at on the way to work by a ponytailed man carrying a banana in a threatening manner. Just some days.

Diary excerpts 5

August 24, 2016

4 January
Today I worked out why the Cambridge Librarians in Training group calls itself Camlit.

13 January
Les Troyens from the Met at cinema today. Wondered why the Trojans were discussing Shakespeare, then realised they were singing ‘J’expire’.

20 January
A reading at evensong tonight about the impossibility of circumcision reversal. I shake my head, as if in regret. A man opposite laughs.

29 January
There’s usually an appropriate German word and it’s usually Sehnsucht. The feeling you get on looking up at someone’s window.

5 February
Walking home, ‘Le vent dans la plaine’ came on and I found myself thinking of J when we were sixteen and seventeen, talking about Zimerman and the Debussy preludes and playing two-piano improvisations for what felt like ages but might have been as little as half an hour or 45 minutes, and realising I’d found something important.

8 February
New German reader appears at the desk: ‘Am I right here?’ Hard to say no.

15 February
Granny is 88 today, and opening birthday cards with a knife. ‘Careful or we’ll be off to A&E!’ ‘I’d rather bleed to death.’

21 February
A man in a fluorescent jacket humming ‘Voi che sapete’ in Sainsbury’s.

10 March
You can tell how reliable someone is as a person by their past library fines. L is in his final year and has 38 books out but has never had a fine (and I suspect never will). I would quite readily give him a job here for life.

14 March
On Cesc Fàbregas: ‘His father was made of fibreglass and his mother was some wood shavings.’

Cesc

Diary excerpts 4

June 11, 2016

28 August
A man dropped his programme in the Albert Hall urinal before tonight’s Prom. Just about the saddest thing I’ve ever seen.

31 August
Woman sitting next to me at last night’s Prom: ‘Richard doesn’t think Barry’s good enough. But that’s Richard – a total sleazebag … I’m dreading Sunday’s party. I’m just an unsociable old bitch. I hate making small talk with people I’ll never see again or want to.’

1 September
When a news story about the death of a soldier ends with ‘Next of kin have been informed’, it is to set the minds of other families at rest. I always find that a rather sobering thought.

4 September
Me: Is that the steak and mushroom pie?
Cafeteria lady: No, just normal pie, love. Steak and mushroom.

5 September
Shop assistant, gesturing towards baby: Someone’s very quiet.
Mother: Yes, he’s quite … high.

6 September
Suave thing to say to a bastard at a cocktail party: ‘Punch? I think you deserve one.’

17 September
Dream that I was writing in a communal birthday card for someone from school and I did a lot of patterns and shading with various ballpoint pens and was so energetic that the pens caught fire and the card was spoiled.

27 September
Mother: Mark Watson was talking about his novel on the radio.
Me: The one about incest?
Mother: I thought it sounded your kind of thing.
Me: Well, I’ve often wondered about it.

RAH